Back when The Boy was four and we were newly arrived in Portland and poor I worked for a time at Cinnabon. When I first got the job I was embarrassed. I mean, here I was, with my Master’s degree in English and mad writing and design and illustration skills, baking cinnamon rolls in an alcove at Fred Meyer’s.
Working at Cinnabon is hard, hot work. You’re on your feet nonstop, working in close proximity to ovens that are ON. The cinnamon that Cinnabon uses is so very intense that the one and only time I let it get on my arms I got hives. On the other hand, I have a long and loving history with cinnamon rolls. One of my earliest memories is of standing in the a cabin in a logging camp, watching Iris, a woman who would become a dear friend once I learned to talk, take a pan of cinnamon rolls out of the oven.
Yes, I was under-employed, but I arrived home smelling delicious, and once I mastered the cash register it didn’t take me long to start thinking in marketing terms. I’m not talking Marketing, which has to do with demographics, banners, and pricing, but marketing, which concerns itself with one simple little question: What are you selling?
About the third day in I realized that the obvious answer–cinnamon rolls–wasn’t the obvious one. It was the customers who clued me in. “This smells so good,” they would say. “Or, this reminds me of my Grandma’s house when I was little,” or, “I wish I could have one, but can’t, not on my diet.”
I realized that what I was selling was not cinnamon rolls, but memory–or maybe a fantasy–of a slower, simpler time when one could walk into a kitchen smelling of baking, sit at the table, and have a grandmotherly woman in an apron bustle around giving food, love, and comfort. I was selling soul food in its purest sense.
And that changed the way that I approached my job. Instead of seeing customers as marks from whom I needed to extract as much money as I could I saw them as battered people seeking the comfort of being wrapped in the fragrance of cinnamon, sugar, and yeast, people who needed to know that there are still women in aprons who greet you with a smile, slide a spatula under a warm cinnamon roll, slather frosting over it, and set it before you with a, “Here, honey, you look like you could use this.”
Women on diets became the customers to whom I offered the tiniest of the minibons as a way to get the taste and comfort without the guilt , high school students on tight budgets got the big minibons, the better to fill the adolescent belly. Big Cinnabons became treats for friends to share. And always, with the sweet, the offer of a drink, hot in the winter, cold in the summer.
I didn’t work at Cinnabon long; I got some big contracts in, and it turned out that by the time I had paid for my uniforms and paid the nice lady who watched The Boy while I worked that I was actually losing money. And that was too bad, because baking at Cinnabon was something I was darned good at not because I was the fastest at rolling and baking, but because while I was feeding and coddling the weary shoppers who walked by on the other side of the sneeze guard I was feeding that part of myself that remembered Iris in her cabin, and needed to believe that women like her still exist–even if I had to become that woman myself.